There have been quite a few groundbreaking discoveries in biology, neuroscience, space research, and so many other areas of science in recent times, though we hardly hear about any of them due to all the irrelevant, viral science posts that do make the news.
From a lab-made plastic-eating enzyme that can potentially solve the plastic problem to AI that can read minds, these are the game-changing science stories of the past few years you may have completely missed.
10. Oldest Animal Ever Found
The origins of animals is one of the biggest mysteries in biology. We still don’t know the first animals to have ever lived on Earth. In fact, it likely happened so long ago that any type of life existing back then would look vastly different from today, so we don’t even know what to look for.
While we don’t know anything about the earliest animals ever, some scientists were recently able to find the earliest animals we know of. In a study published in Nature, researchers found fossils of mesh-like creatures in an ancient underwater reef going as far back as 890 million years, pushing our timeline of the evolution of animals back by about 300 million years. While they resemble some sponge-like creatures found in the oceans today, more research is needed to determine if they’re related to each other, as we still don’t know enough about life at that time.
9. Plastic-Eating Enzymes
Plastic is one of the most abundant man-made substances found on Earth. Scientists have found traces of it in rainwater, beaches, glaciers and nearly every time of environment you can think of. In the ocean – including the deep sea, where even light cannot find its way – plastic waste makes up about 80% of all debris.
As you can tell, that’s a problem. The abundance of plastic in the environment doesn’t just threaten other types of wildlife – especially marine wildlife – but also affects our own food supply. The biggest problem is that we have no way to break plastic down to its chemical constituents, so the amount of plastic in the world just keeps going up.
It’ll be a while before we find a permanent solution to this, though some researchers at the University of Portsmouth in the UK recently developed a super enzyme that can potentially solve the problem at an industrial scale. It was derived from a bacteria found in a Japanese dump back in 2016, which consumes plastic as food and releases its separate chemicals as waste.
While that’s still too slow to make a real dent in the amount of plastic waste we produce every day, the researchers are hopeful that the super enzyme could be improved to work on a large, industrial scale.
CRISPR-Cas9 is a breakthrough, Nobel-prize-winning technology that allows us to precisely edit the genome in a variety of ways. While we know that gene-editing is the future, CRISPR-Cas9 provides the first real pathway to it. While it had been in limited use in research labs around the world for at least a decade, it wasn’t until 2020 that it was actually used on a patient.
In a clinical trial done at the Oregon Health & Science University, CRISPR-Cas9 was administered to seven patients suffering from Leber congenital amaurosis – a severe, genetic disorder that causes blindness. While it’s too early to tell if it worked – as the study is still going on – one of the patients reported a definite improvement in her eyesight a few months after the treatment.
Robots made out of real, living cells have been a staple of science fiction for a while, though we’ve never been able to bring them to life. For one, there’s the ethical dilemma of whether we should be messing around with manufacturing new forms of life at all. More importantly, though, the technology to accomplish something like that still doesn’t exist.
While it’ll be some time before we can build our own replicants from Blade Runner, researchers from Tufts University and the University of Vermont recently pioneered a technology called Xenobots. Built using stem cells taken from an African frog species, these xenobots were programmed to evolve on their own using AI and machine learning.
Made entirely using skin cells and heart muscle tissue, many of the bots evolved to perform functions you wouldn’t expect, including self-healing, swimming, walking, pushing small payloads, and anything else you can program them to do.
Machines being able to read and decode brain waves sounds like a device straight out of a dystopian fiction novel. Of course, we already have sophisticated tech that can read brain waves – like MRI scanners – though we’ve never been able to develop software that could reliably tell what they mean, until now.
Four scientists from Kyoto University in Japan recently used AI to develop a technique that doesn’t just decode brain waves, but reproduces a scarily accurate visual representation of what we’re thinking, even from memory. They used deep neural networks – an AI technique that works like the neural networks in the brain – to study brain activity and match it with images in the real world, which was then used on subjects who were shown various images over a course of 10 months.
The software was able to reproduce the images to a remarkable degree of accuracy, though with a few details changed or modified. More importantly, it worked when the readings were taken some time after seeing the images, too, proving that the technology could one day be used to reproduce visuals straight from memory.
5. A New Organ
It’s difficult to imagine that in 2021, there are still organs inside the human body that we don’t know about. In an accidental discovery made at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, researchers found that a region behind the nose called the nasopharynx is home to an entirely new type of salivary glands. It was previously thought to contain microbial salivary glands we already know about, though their research is the first one to prove that this is a distinct, new type of organ.
They discovered the glands during a completely different study on prostate cancer, and are still not sure about their true function. The nasopharynx region is also quite hard to access and study, which explains why it took so long to find them.
4. The Mars ‘Hum’
NASA’s InSight lander landed on the surface of Mars in November 2018 with the sole purpose of mapping seismic activity under its surface. They had detected some seismic activity on previous missions and suspected that there’s a lot more to find if we had proper sensors in place. Indeed, as soon as InSight got to work, it detected that marsquakes – which is what we’re calling them now – are actually quite regular, and most of them are caused by the planet cooling and contracting.
Interestingly, the lander also picked up a mysterious ‘hum’ sound everywhere on Mars. We know that it falls outside the range of human hearing and may be caused by some kind of seismic activity combined with the sounds of the atmosphere, though that’s about it. It’s eerily similar to a kind of ‘hum’ sound audible on Earth, and we don’t know the true origins of that, either.
3. Seeing Through Walls
X-ray vision is one of those ‘cool’ things from science fiction that are actually extremely creepy if you think about them. However, a technology like that has plenty of useful applications, too, especially in medicine. For one, if doctors and other healthcare specialists could monitor their patients in real time without the need for special sensors, they can be treated much more efficiently.
While seeing through walls like it works in the movies would still probably take some time to fully develop, researchers at MIT have taken their first steps towards it. Using artificial intelligence and radio signals, they developed a system to track someone’s movements in the next room to a high accuracy, only in the form of stick figures instead of a real-life video feed, as the technology is still in its early stages. They’ve named it RF-Pose, and in all their demonstrations, it was able to see what was happening behind a wall just based on the radio waves bouncing off in that room quite accurately.
What’s surprising is that it learned how to do that all on its own with the help of machine learning, as the scientists never explicitly taught it to interpret radio waves from other rooms.
2. A Giant Reef
Most people don’t realize how vast the ocean really is, and how difficult it is to fully map it. That’s why we still find things underwater that we had never seen before, including new species of plants and animals as well as geological features we totally missed.
Recently, researchers from the Schmidt Ocean Institute found something similar near the Great Barrier Reef, during one of the missions to explore the oceans around Australia. It was a giant, 1,640-foot tall reef that had gone completely unnoticed in previous missions, as it’s a bit away from the main structure. They were surprised by its size – at its base, the new reef is about 1.5 kilometers, or 0.9 miles, in length – proving that we still know next to nothing about the oceans beyond our immediate shorelines.
1. Climate Change
Out of all the science stories of the past few years, none is as important or consequential as the recent reports regarding climate change. While weather conditions have been getting more extreme for a while now, the year 2021 saw extreme heat waves, floods, forest fires, and a slew of other disasters in many different regions around the world.
The most concerning, though, is a recent report that found that even if we completely cut all emissions right now, we’ve passed a point of no return. Global temperatures would likely peak much higher than 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next few decades – or faster, and unless all carbon emissions are completely stopped by 2050, there’s really no way to stop that.